The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, founded in 2009 by its patrons the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, is the largest annual fiction prize to be judged outside London, and honours the legacy and achievements of Sir Walter Scott, founder of the historical novel. It awards novels set in the past – for the purposes of the prize, at least sixty years ago. Winner of the first Walter Scott Prize, Hilary Mantel, described its founding as ‘much the best thing that has happened for lovers of historical fiction.'
Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017. From the jubilant “You shall go to the ball!” of the preface, and the “Once upon a time” opening, this glorious feminist-hued fable tells of a young woman’s transformation from domestic servant to liberated writer. Sunday, 30th March, 1924. It’s Mothering Sunday and, as is customary, book lover Jane Fairchild has been relieved of her housemaid’s duties. But (in true fairy tale fashion), Jane has no mother to visit, and instead jumps at the chance of enjoying an intimate liaison with her lover. Cue much delicious anticipation: “Her heart had soared. Feast your eyes. A story was beginning". By lunchtime, Jane is alone again, but she leaves her lover’s house feeling “a sudden unexpected freedom”. While tragic news is but a blink away, the disrupted chronology of this exquisitely written novel reveals the storyteller’s life that Jane later carves for herself, with only the tale of this momentous Mothering Sunday left untold to her readers.With such an abundance of life, soul, sensuality and style packed into less than 150 pages, I can’t recommend this flawless, life-affirming nugget enough. ~ Joanne Owen The Walter Scott Prize Judges said:‘It is March 30, 1924. Mothering Sunday. The day that servants were allowed to return to their families. Jane Fairchild is a housemaid and orphan with no prospect of a visit home but she has a rendezvous, nevertheless. It is that encounter and its consequences that are described in this short novel by Graham Swift. Jane’s life will never be the same as she begins a journey from servitude to independence. It is a perfect and life-affirming novel.’
Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017. An exuberant, kaleidoscopic debut set in the turbulent times around the 1917 Russian revolution, told through the eyes of an eighty-year-old Englishwoman recalling her youth. It's 1914 and, against the wishes of her family, young Gerty Freely goes to Moscow to work as a governess for the middle class Kobelov family. She experiences the city as a place of “unexpected joyfulness” and remains even after Russia declares war on Germany. When the Kobelovs leave the city, Gerty stays, and the family home becomes the base of the Institute of Revolutionary Transformation, spearheaded by charismatic inventor Nikita Slavin. The commune’s manifesto declares war on The Private, The Old and The Ego, and the group cultivates its own utopia, with Slavin (in fabulously full-on mad scientist mode) working to perfect his Propaganda Machine, and then the Socialisation Capsule, a device he claims will enable comrades to time travel to a utopian version of Now. As the crumbling outer world encroaches on the commune, Slavin vanishes. The question is, did the authorities remove him, or did he disappear into another space and time?Gerty is an immensely intriguing narrator, and her story is exhilaratingly original. Blending an extraordinary personal journey with fascinating, lightly worn historical detail, this is a triumph of a debut. ~ Joanne Owen The Walter Scott Judges said:‘Charlotte Hobson's The Vanishing Futurist fulfils the ultimate requirement of a historical novel: it inhabits a moment in history and in doing so illuminates recurring truths about the past, present and future. The moment in history is the Russian revolution and the avant-garde theories of community, art and science which it spawned. But the charismatic founder of a commune, and the evangelical zeal of its members, are recurring phenomena throughout history, from early Christian times to our own day. The narrator's voice, disciplined yet passionate, is a perfect vehicle for this fascinating novel, with its fast moving plot and characters who are so real that I found myself leafing through the book in the hope of finding their photographs.’
Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017. Three women are at the heart of this beguiling, elemental novel, in which the dialogue dances, and the force of Irish fairy lore weaves its eerie, all-consuming ways through a superstitious rural community in the early nineteenth century. Nóra’s husband was “a fit man, in the full of healthy” when he dropped down dead at a crossroads reserved for the burial of suicides. Nóra has already lost her daughter this year, and now cares for her grandson Micheál who, inexplicably, has ceased speaking and walking. In the words of Mary, the young girl who comes to work for Nóra, he’s like a “strange scarecrow”, “a baby’s plaything, made from sticks and an old dress”. The locals whisper that he’s a changling, that his mother was carried away by the Good People (the fairies), that he played some part in his grandfather’s untimely passing. Terrified of him, (Nóra’s nights are “shattered with the boy’s screaming”), and at her wits end, she takes the desperate measure of whipping Micheál with nettles, thinking the sting will make him move. It’s then that a neighbour says Nóra must seek advice from Nance of the Fairies. With her wise woman’s knowledge of herbs and spirits, Nance is “a pagan chorus”, “the gatekeeper at the edge of the world”, and has healed many a person in need. Although the new priest “has the word out against her”, healing is what she does, and so Nance agrees to “put the fairy out of [Micheál]”. As further misfortunes are blamed on the child, the three women work to restore him amidst an atmosphere charged with increasing hostility.Inspired by a real-life event, this is an absolutely stunning account of a poor community clinging to superstition and ritual in order to make sense of their isolated world. Chilling, and charged with earthiness, I loved it. ~ Joanne Owen The Walter Scott Prize Judges said:‘This is a marvelously physical evocation of rural Ireland, which is deeply personal without ever being mawkish. With a cracking good narrative, Hannah Kent has conjured up an entire world that most of us would never see or know about, and has created three entirely different female characters who resonate long beyond the novel. The hold of the church and of superstition over the people is both totally believable and plausible.'
Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017. An enthralling work of literary fiction exploring Samuel Beckett’s life in Occupied France. It’s autumn, 1939 and a young writer has returned to Paris, and to Suzanne, his lover and anchor. “He didn’t have to come back. But here he is”, a “pale and wounded Irish man”, without the necessary papers, but ready to make an impact with his art, ready to do something of worth. Then Paris falls, his friend (James) Joyce departs, and soon “Paris isn’t Paris any more”. Associates are taken, Gestapo presence is ever more pervasive and, at huge risk, he joins the Resistance, while also questioning the value of a writer’s work.Throughout, the writing possesses an effecting sparseness, from the early domestic scenes with the writer’s family, “all shiny buckled shoes and neat cardigans”, to the bleakness of Occupied France (the hunger, the acts of cruelty, the creeping fear and despair). This novel is both a profound portrayal of an artist’s inner life, and of his engagement with the ravaged world outside. It’s also a testament to a spirit of survival, to finding “decency amongst the ruins”. ~ Joanne Owen The Walter Scott Prize Judges said: ‘We loved the quiet, lyrical, beauty of this novel and its skilful recreation of Samuel Beckett’s years in France throughout the Second World War. It’s illuminating about Beckett’s individual heroism and humanity. The descriptions of France under occupation are always surprising and moving as he (and Baker) chart the horror, despair, starvation and uncertainty of those years with a writer’s eye. Central to the narrative is Beckett’s love for Suzanne, the young French woman he eventually married. The strain of five years of war, their escape from Paris, their long walk to Roussillon and their repeated separations takes a heavy toll on their relationship. But through all of this their quiet love survives.’
July 2017 Book of the Month. Winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017. Winner of 2016 Costa Book of the Year and Winner of the Costa Novel Award 2016. This big-hearted, beautiful and splendidly sweeping tale of war, survival and love in the American West is a storytelling masterpiece.After losing his family to the famine, Irish boy Thomas McNulty crept aboard a ship bound for Canada and arrived as one of the unwelcome “rats of people”. In America, fate unites him with John Cole, a part Indian boy with “river-black eyes” and a “lean face as sharp as a hunting dog”. From the outset, Thomas knows that they’re “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world”, and John becomes his lifelong companion, his soulmate, his lover. As young boys, they find work as dancers in a saloon, dressing in women’s clothes to entertain the menfolk in a town bereft of women. When they grow too big to pass as girls, they join the US Cavalry. The horrors of massacres are intensely evoked, and so too is the tenderness between Thomas and John, and then between them and Winona, the Indian girl they form a family with. Thomas is a beguiling narrator, his voice warm with wisdom, and utterly unforgettable, as is this remarkable novel. That so much insight into the ways of the human heart has been distilled in so few pages is a truly extraordinary feat. ~ Joanne Owen The Walter Scott Prize Judges said:‘Intimate, lyrical, courteous, Barry offers the authentic voice of Thomas McNulty, a nineteenth century Irish-American possessed of a nineteenth century respect for both language and reader. In this tale of Indian War and American Civil War carnage, the voice is also, miraculously, the voice of love. The voice alone secures Days Without End a place on the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize. And the story of course. Neither comfortable nor pretty, it pulses with courage, loyalty and, amid the horrors, grace. This is a living novel. From its pages, Thomas shakes the reader’s hand and the hand of every ragged soldier on our ragged streets.’
Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017. Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2016. Profoundly moving tale of love and devotion, told in a steady, lucid style that reverberates with the latent undercurrent of suppressed, unfulfilled longings. Switzerland, 1947, and five-year-old Gustav lives a lonely existence until he befriends Anton Zwiebel, a teary Jewish boy who joins his kindergarten. Gustav feels quite sorry for Anton, whose surname his means “onion”, and whose prodigious talent as a pianist is hampered by an incapacitating fear of public performance. Gustav's defining first visit to the wealthy Zwiebel household is evoked with crystalline intensity. It’s a new world of music, and ice-skating and trips away that couldn’t be more different from the austerity of his own home life. Anton’s mother is spirited, while Gustav’s beloved Mutti is curt and distant, and has brought him up to “master himself”, to be "like Switzerland" (his father, a former Assistant Police Chief, died before Gustav was old enough to remember him). The boys cement their bond during a two-week holiday, when they play doctor and nurse in an abandoned sanatorium, deciding which of their imaginary patients live or die, and enacting the kiss of life. When we meet Gustav in middle age, he's still playing at mastering himself, and overlooked by bitter Anton, while his own heart remains steadfast and true, though it’s still restrained and guarded. Meanwhile, the story of Gustav’s parents set some ten years earlier is hauntingly illuminating; there’s the misfortune that struck their first year of marriage, then the tragedy of how his father's efforts to save Jewish lives led to his own downfall. The perfect conclusion comes not as a crashing crescendo, but as a heartfelt swelling, as satisfying as releasing a gasp after a long-held breath. Truly, this poignant novel casts a long-lingering spell. ~ Joanne Owen The Walter Scott Prize Judges said:‘Set at first in Switzerland as the Second World War swirls around its borders, this novel is simply magnificent, by turns cold and bleak, life-affirming and always very beautifully written. The images in The Gustav Sonata filled my eye, its story captured my heart and it made me marvel at Rose Tremain's remarkable skills.’
Winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2017. Inventively entertaining, niftily plotted first novel set in New York during the city’s effervescent infancy. It’s 1746 and a young man by the name of Smith arrives in New York from London with an order for £1000. He takes it to a Lovell, a banker based on Golden Hill Street, in order to have it cashed. “Lord love us,” Lovell exclaims at the sight of so large an amount. “This is a bill for a thousand pound”. Speculation is duly aroused: what on earth is Smith planning to do with such a quantity of cash? And what’s his purpose in the city? But Smith emerges from the counting house as “a young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face”. The depiction of place is gratifyingly sensory. New York and its citizens are vibrantly evoked, from the “perfumes of hot bread and well-ground beans” on Smith’s morning meanderings, to the “African footmen with wigs powdered to the colour of icing-sugar” he sights in a church congregation.While the puzzle at the heart of the novel is not revealed until the very last pages, the plentiful and nimbly executed plot twists provide much satisfaction throughout. Part mystery, part homage to eighteenth century literature, this is an exuberant literary delight with all the readability of a page-turner. ~ Joanne Owen Winner of the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2017 | Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017 | Shortlisted for The Authors' Club Best First Novel Award 2017 | Winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2016. The Walter Scott Prize Judges said:‘Pre-revolutionary New York, and a stranger arrives in town, where he finds a ferment of social jostling, politics and money that invites adventure. A great, unruly city is being born. Francis Spufford creates a world that is hypnotic and believable, brought to life in sparkling prose and pitch-perfect dialogue, and tells a gripping story that's full of tension and surprise, with characters who live on after the book is closed. His non-fiction writing has been much-admired. This first novel is an astonishing achievement because his novelist's voice is already enticing, rich and mature. An eighteenth-century treat.’ Costa judges' comment: “This spirited, wonderfully witty novel sets sparkling characters and a lively plot against a richly-realised backdrop.”
The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017 winner announced!
Sebastian Barry has won the eighth £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his epic American novel Days Without End. Barry’s previous novel On Canaan’s Side was a winner in 2012, and he returned to the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland to receive his Prize from the Duke of Buccleuch on 17 June 2017.
Sebastian Barry said on winning the Prize: “It’s difficult to itemise my simple childish joy at receiving this prize; that the judges did all this work to make a 61 year old man feel 12 again."
The other books that were shortlisted for the award are:
A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
The Judges commented:
“We have a longer shortlist than usual due to the variety of the longlist, and the fresh perspectives and lively debate generated by the introduction of three new judges to the panel.
Our shortlist was achieved by the judges' instinctive reaction to each book. The seven shortlisted novels, a mix of old hands and new voices, offer readers joy in the discovery of unusual subjects and times; appreciation of historical research and insight worn lightly and applied skilfully; and, perhaps most important of all, that visceral connection to the characters which is the prerequisite of every novel, whether historical or not.
The judging panel comprised Alistair Moffat (chair), Elizabeth Buccleuch, Kate Figes, Katharine Grant, James Holloway, Elizabeth Laird, and James Naughtie.
To qualify, books must have been published in the previous year in the UK or the Commonwealth, and be mostly set in the past - for the purposes of the Prize, at least 60 years ago. This definition comes from the subtitle of Walter Scott’s novel Waverley; Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since.